FoI reveals Sussex Police used RIPA to expose contact between journalists and inspector source - Press Gazette

FoI reveals Sussex Police used RIPA to expose contact between journalists and inspector source

  • Sussex Police used RIPA to analyse inspector's personal devices
  • Confirms force as one of 19 to use RIPA to find journalistic sources in three years to October 2014
  • RIPA use confirmed by FoI after press office refused to answer question

Sussex Police used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to identify a senior officer as a journalistic source, Press Gazette has learned.

The inspector, Lee Lyons, has since been sacked by Sussex Police after he was found to have "formed and maintained" relationships with journalists. There was no suggestion money changed hands and the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to bring criminal charges.

Earlier this month, in a document outlining 21 allegations against Lyons, Sussex Police published the content of messages the inspector exchanged with two local journalists and a BBC producer. They have not been named.

The force became aware of contact between the journalists and Lyons, it said, after "examination of devices owned by Sussex Police and analysis of Lee Lyons's personal devices, which were obtained with the necessary legal permissions". It said the records of journalists were not obtained.

The allegations against Lyons, which he did not contest, also included claims he contacted prostitutes while on duty, shared information with a lawyer friend and had been “rude, arrogant and unprofessional” to colleagues. He was suspended on 2 October and sacked earlier this month.

Detective Inspector Nick Wainwright said: "The incidents came to light when very sensitive details of four cases were passed over a matter of a few days to a journalist who then sought clarification of the information.

"As a result of this, Deputy Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney tasked the anti-corruption unit with identifying the source of the leak and a host of other incidents were discovered."

The force said in a statement: "Sussex Police became aware of contact with journalists as a result of examination of devices owned by Sussex Police and analysis of Lee Lyons's personal devices, which were obtained with the necessary legal permissions. The investigation has not required or involved any access to records of any other parties."

Sussex Police press office refused to tell Press Gazette whether these "legal permissions" were under RIPA. 

But a Press Gazette Freedom of Information request has now confirmed the act was used. 

The force said: "I can confirm that Lee Lyons' personal devices were lawfully seized under a Warrant and were then analysed under a RIPA authorisation."

Analysis: A rare disclosure

This disclosure is rare because the majority of UK police forces have refused to answer FoI requests relating to RIPA and journalistic sources.

It is also significant because it confirms that Sussex Police was one of the 19 forces to have used RIPA to expose journalist-source contact in the three years to 6 October 2014.

The figure of 19 was revealed in a report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office (IOCCO), published in February. 

During this period, forces made 608 applications in relation to 34 investigations. The records of 82 journalists and 233 suspected sources were obtained over this period.

However, IOCCO did not identify the police forces concerned. And the majority of forces have refused to say whether they are among the 19.

The forces that have been identified as using RIPA in this way during the period are:

Suffolk Police and Thames Valley Police are known to have used RIPA to find journalistic sources prior to October 2011.

The IOCCO report judged that police forces were not “randomly trawling communications data relating to journalists in order to identify their sources”. But the office said police forces generally “did not give the question of necessity, proportionality and collateral intrusion sufficient consideration”.

It said that while generally Article 8 (privacy) of the European Convention of Human Rights was considered, Article 10 (freedom of speech) was not.

The report also stated that the Home Office’s draft RIPA code of practice would “not provide adequate safeguards to protect journalistic sources or prevent unnecessary or disproportionate intrusions”.

IOCCO recommended that the law be changed to prevent forces from accessing phone records to find journalistic sources without judicial approval. This was the central demand of Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign and it has now been passed into law.

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